I’ve often heard the question asked: “Are humans born good, or are they born evil?” The answer depends on the person and, based on the answer, you can derive whether that person is a cynic or an optimistic thinker.
For instance, if I were to answer that people are naturally bad, I would most likely believe that people are also selfish, egotistical, and untrustworthy most of the time. If I were to answer that people are naturally good, I would most likely believe that people are also honest, kind, and trustworthy most of the time.
But we must consider that “good” and “evil” are merely value judgements that humans impose on others in order to understand them. Good and evil aren’t qualities found in things themselves. I can’t pull on my scientist’s lab coat, adjust the lens on my microscope, place a human being under the glass slide, and discover whether or not that person is good or evil.
This of course leads to the conclusion that good and evil aren’t scientific and, therefore, don’t exist in the actual world; but, for most people, this answer is unsatisfying. Since there are people, and there are value judgements, I must conceive of a different answer.
As a substitute teacher, and having taught in a classroom of kindergarteners for two months, I can reasonably say that humans aren’t born good or evil--they are born unprincipled.
People live according to a set of principles, and these vary according to culture. Principles guide behavior, and when these principles are infringed upon, we have societal laws and entertainment (distractions) to keep people in check. But principles aren’t just found at the cultural level. Principles are found in schools, in the workplace, and in everyday social interactions.
What I mean when I say that people are born unprincipled, what I mean is that they are born not knowing how to act in a manner conducive to the welfare of a community or society.
A school, for instance, has rules and principles that students must act in accordance with. If these rules and principles aren’t followed, then chaos is sure to ensue.
Children are unprincipled until taught otherwise. The kindergarteners that I had for two months were unprincipled until I taught them otherwise (Well, I usually bribed them with treats and free time, but that’s beside the point).
The point is that humans must be taught how to act. They don’t come into the world already understanding proper social norms and behaviors.
If we lived in a world where people weren’t taught how to act, it seems quite natural that people would act in mostly selfish ways. Our primal instinct is to look out for ourselves first, and that was one of the observations I made in a classroom full of five and six year-olds.
As children, we need to be taught how to share and be kind. We need to assimilate to the fact that stealing and hurting others are illegal. Punishment and reward are our greatest motivators, and without these, we would still be living in caves.
From what has just been said, it might seem that humans are born evil since they must be taught how to act in principled ways. This is certainly one way to look at it, but one that I believe is too simplistic.
We live in an unprincipled world. We don’t live in a good or evil world. Good and evil come later. They come when principles fail… or succeed.